“How I Got My Agent” is a recurring feature on the GLA blog. Some tales are of long roads and many setbacks, while others are of good luck and quick signings. To see the previous installments of this column, click here. If you have a literary agent and would be interested in writing a short guest column for this GLA blog, e-mail me at email@example.com and we’ll talk specifics.
Mary is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Brie won.)
(Open Road Books; Nov. 2010; print and ebook), a
story of four interwoven lives in Mississippi, from the
50s to the 90s. Mary has won a finalist award from
the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities,
and is also a freelance writer. Originally from Boston,
she lives on Seabrook Island in South Carolina with
her husband and beloved horse, King of Harts.
LONG TIME COMIN’
Cynthia Ozick once remarked that being published for the first time at 38 was a kind of little death. For me being published at the age of 61 was a kind of resurrection. Home in the Morning is my seventh novel written and the first one published, although out of the seven, only one was really bad. The rest were damn good. But I’ve learned a lot of this business is all about luck. You can have the wrong idea at the wrong time (my first novel), the right idea at the wrong time (that’d be two through five), the wrong idea at any time at all (number six, the really bad one), and if you’re lucky, the right idea at the right time (Home in the Morning).
My first novel won me a finalist award from The Massachusetts Arts and Humanities Foundation back in ’75 or ’76, I’ve forgotten which now. I landed a respected New York agent through my writing teacher in a MCW program. I was young, I was confident, I had it all: a solid piece of work, academic praise, professional representation. Within months I would own the last five minutes of Johnny Carson. Who knew The Tonight Show’s literary segment and The Great Carnac would both be long dead before any work of mine saw print?
Not me. Kind rejection letters flowed. I buried myself in novel number two. By the time I was done, the topic I’d thought so original was stale: three big time authors covered the same turf just as I was ready to submit. Right idea. Wrong time.
I plugged on. I aimed high. But every novel came up hard against the same brick wall. Once after maybe 34 years of rejection, I thought: “If they don’t want me, I’ll stop writing. That’ll show them.” There were wails and the ripping of garments all over midtown Manhattan. It turned out I was bluffing. After couple of months, I was at it again.
WHAT KEPT ME GOIN’
They say you are what you do. Each time I failed, I rolled up my sleeves and started over. Somewhere in there ambition took a back seat and the joy of writing sat up next to me in the catbird one. I was a writer. I had to write. It was what I did.
Rejection—especially 40 years of it—hurts. I’m sorry, Cynthia, it’s not a little death; it’s more like the devastation of plague or flood. But it only hurts oceans if you’re waiting idly when it comes. If you’re working on something new, the new thing is a buffer, it protects you, it gives you fresh hope. The Buddha was right. It’s the process not the goal that sustains you. Trust me.
HOW THE DAM BURST
When I wrote Home in the Morning, I wrote it to please myself. There were reasons I shouldn’t have written it at all. It’s about Southern Jews during the civil rights era. I was born and raised Catholic Yankee. It’s plotted in a nonlinear fashion. Its point of view is an innovation of sorts. I don’t use quotation marks for speech. All risky business for the unpublished. But I enjoyed writing it as I’d never enjoyed writing before.
When it was done, I thought about getting a new agent. Yes, I still had the same agent I’d had back in ’76. I was fond of her, she of me, but I’d nearly 40 years proof we weren’t such a hot match. I was terrified of trying to find another agent. Everyone said it was harder in 2010 to find an agent than it was to find a publisher. I didn’t even know what a query letter was. Agents handled those things. Agents did the business. I just wrote novels. Still, I knew I had to make the break (not easy).
I started checking out all the websites everyone does, including this one—the GLA blog. I was intimidated; things looked grim. Then all in a bundle, my luck changed. A lawyer friend who loved my work suggested I contact Peter Riva with whom she’d done business in the past. I did. Peter and I clicked and thanks to that powerhouse of energy, that whirlwind of enthusiasm and savvy who takes my breath away, within a month I had a contract from Open Road Integrated Media, the new cutting edge digital phenom. Forget the plague and flood. A published writer is born.
I still can’t believe my good luck. Maybe I was due some after all the bad. I am now at the table. In the game. Finishing my eighth novel. Oh yeah. In the publishing world, it’s only number two.
MORAL OF THE STORY
Isn’t it obvious? Never give up. You are best writer of your generation and rejections pile up anyway. What’s to be done? Repeat that phrase: Never give up. Never give up.
Update from Mary: Amazing news! Sundance director Jim Kohlberg is set to helm the film version of Home in the Morning. See the article in The Hollywood Reporter.
Mary is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Brie won.)
should look like? Seek
out the formatting
Your Manuscript, 3rd Ed.